When arguing about the ethics of "photoinvention"—going past the line of correction and into creation in constructing images—I strongly suspect that peoples' stance on the issue has to do primarily with justifying their own practice. That is, if you clone all kinds of stuff yourself, then you don't see anything wrong with Photoshopping. If you don't even when you're tempted to, then you can be critical of it.
But you see (apropos last Sunday), that's an example of my primary belief system or basic outlook being psychological; I tend to look for internal motivations in the actor/speaker first. :-)
Let's go over some basics.
When it's someone's job to give other people a report about what's going on, that person is enjoined, formally and by custom, to try to be honest, impartial, and objective. There are several parts to this. First, they're obligated to do the work of understanding what they're reporting on. There are a number of tried-and-true ways to go about that—go there; spend enough time; take a fresh look and see for yourself; talk to people who are caught up in it, whatever it is, or who are experts in it in whatever way; look into background information; attempt to see conflicting views from both sides; and so on. Most of these methods are well understood and are part of the process, resources permitting.
Next, that person is asked to suppress their own opinions, their partisanship, and their biases, so as not to give a skewed or one-sided report by omission or commission. To do this, they need to be aware of what those biases are. And, usually, they need another outlet to vent that bias and partisan opinion so it doesn't leak into their reporting, which is why editorials and opinion columns exist in traditional newspapers. In their respective opinion and editorial (Op-Ed) pages, the New York Times typically has a liberal and humanist slant, the Wall Street Journal a conservative and business-friendly one, and the Christian Science Monitor a religious and Christian one. But all three papers offer very good reporting outside of their Op-Ed content, because all three take their journalistic responsibilities seriously and try their best not to let their acknowledged biases intrude.
Does this mean that all reporting is perfectly true and objective?
Of course not. But we all realize that. People in the business (or who went to J-school) can cite chapter and verse: much thought and effort has gone into understanding all the ways that reporting can still be inaccurate. If you want a clean windowpane into the ways that current cultural assumptions influence reporting, for instance (just one of the ways in which reporting can be skewed), you have only to go back and read some articles from the 1950s, the 1920s, and the 1880s. The differences will jump out at you. We are of course not immune to the same thing—people will look back on 2016 and "see" our cultural assumptions—good and bad—clearly, in ways we cannot.
Similarly, photographs are (of course) not automatically "true." There are a myriad ways they can distort the report, so to speak. We understand most of those ways. And we understand them both in our roles as creators and as viewers. This is not a big secret.
But primary to good reporting, whether it is done with writing or with pictures, is the crucial matter of the intention to deceive vs. the intention to be honest. Reports have authors. Traditionally, those authors have editors riding herd on them, helping keep them on track and seeing to it that the necessary standards are upheld. When the medium is words, the authors are called reporters, and when it's pictures, they're called photojournalists and editorial photographers (i.e., photographers who illustrate fact-based articles). All the players follow the rules and do their best.
When this system works, which admittedly it does only a small percentage of the time, the results can be superlative. The greatest photo essays and the finest journalistic investigations can, and have, changed the world. But most good journalism doesn't change the world: it just informs us about it and gives us insight into it. Which is good, because you can't look into everything firsthand on your own. In fact, arguably the primary advantage conferred to our species by language and communication is that we can learn things we need to know from other people, such that we're not limited to knowing only what we ourselves can find out about firsthand.
When this is cynically manipulated, it's called "propaganda." Or, at a more basic level, "lies." (And if you're unclear about the distinction between "telling the truth" and "telling a lie," brush up. Go figure it out. It's not that tough.) And this brings up another crucial point: as viewers and readers, if our interest is in gaining insight about reality and furthering our understanding of the world and its affairs, we have a fundamental decision to make: how much to trust our various sources. And in that project—that ongoing, always provisional project—two things help a lot: one, that we understand the basic motives and interests of the authors of the reports we're getting (another important function of the traditional Op/Ed section), and two, that they tell us what they're doing, what set of rules they're adhering to.
Because, of course, not everyone is doing the same thing. Again formally and by custom, we've separated different pursuits into different categories. It's easier to trust an author when we know what they're up to and which category their work falls into. Some "fiction," you'll note, is designed as a way of getting closer to certain truths; inventing characters can sometimes allow an author to explore areas of human thought and behavior that can't be verified (various historians have resorted to novels not to distort history but to more clearly convey their understanding of it). Other fiction doesn't do this—it might be meant only to entertain, or to conjure the "sustained dream" of an alternative reality into which the reader can escape, as if in a reverie of his or her own. Even within specific genres, aims and intentions can be different: science fiction might be purely fantastical, a device for slipping the mundane bounds of the everyday, or it might be seriously speculative, allowing a well-informed author to propose things that might actually plausibly happen in the future.
Own the authorship
Given the recent dust-up, I thought it was an irony to happen across an article on the Web titled "See India Through Steve McCurry's Lens." Ironic because when you add and subtract elements, you're explicitly departing from the view through the lens.
As I see the whole affair from my distant viewpoint here in the hinterlands, the current problem with Mr. McCurry is simply that his background is in photojournalism and editorial photography, and he markets himself using those credentials, and his primary affiliations (National Geographic magazine and Magnum Photos) inhabit those universes, and his current work seems to all appearances to be a seamless continuation of all that earlier work—same look, same subjects, same approach. But, by the clear standards of his now-known-to-be-former profession(s), he got caught cheating. So now he has to engineer a clumsy coverup (really sort of a primer on why not to do a coverup and all the ways it can be done badly), and start mumbling about how, yeah, things really shouldn't be added or subtracted using Photoshop, and I promise to be good from now on, and whimper whimper.
But to heck with all that. If I were Steve McCurry, I'd embrace the new me. Revise the mission statement. I'd say to the world, Hey, you're right, I'm not a photojournalist. I used to be, and I was good at it, but lately I've become a storyteller, and I'm even better at that. My work is a lyrical, romanticized view of the exotic Third World of my imagination—my personal interpretation of how I like to look at the magical, mysterious qualities of distant lands and disappearing peoples. I used to be a reporter but then I discovered what I'm really interested in doing. My work is based on reality, and it starts out being photographic and sometimes stays that way, but I'm first and foremost a photo-illustrator and an artist.
Would anybody have any problem with that? Raise your hand. Anybody here? Anybody anywhere? I doubt it. I wouldn't, even though I'm partial to "straight" photography personally. Like I would have a problem with somebody growing as an artist and evolving thoughtfully and forthrightly into his more authentic self? Not a chance.
Why not just be who you already are? The guy shouldn't Photoshop less, he should Photoshop more. Heck, it's how he sees, even when he doesn't clone a thing. That article title should be, "See India Through Steve McCurry's Eyes." Own the authorship.
Embrace it. Go all in. It's clear that's what he wants to be and what he's best at.
Just...be clear about it, is all. Don't be one thing while you let on that you're another. As a bonus, when you stand tall and walk straight, all manner of things are forgiven.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Bill Pierce: "In the early and mid 'eighties, when we were all young, a bunch of us were covering the war in Lebanon. Don McCullin was the best among us, but it was a pretty solid group with Dirck Halstead, Robin Moyer, Gene Richards, Bill Foley and a bunch of others who have gone on to do fairly well as old photographers who don’t get shot at any more. Our publications wanted to see war. National Geographic had Steve McCurry shooting the religious leaders. Steve probably had just as much a chance of being somewhere in Beirut that got bombed as we had. We were shooting what our publications thought was important. Steve was shooting what his publication thought was important. Our pictures could never be as moving and life changing as the what we were photographing. Steve’s pictures might have been more dramatic than what he was photographing.
"All of us are shaped by what we did when we were young. The news publications gave some of us amazing educations that went far beyond what we learned in school. I don’t think Steve got the same education. He was unique. Geo sent him into dangerous situations that their other photographers never entered. But, somehow and not surprisingly, what they published always seemed more distanced from the events than what appeared in the news publications. Steve is currently getting criticized for using his computer to clean up his images and make them a little 'prettier.' I think the criticism is valid. But I also think Steve is a good guy who was told early in the game to make his pictures pretty."